I want to play the harp!

  • Participant
    james on #254605

    Hello harpists, I seek your advice!

    I am in my mid-sixties and have never owned, let alone played, a harp.
    I did, however, study music and have played many different instruments.

    So, where do I begin?

    What sort of harp and how many strings?
    These are variables which don’t apply to many of my instruments. I can’t see myself applying for an orchestral post in the future, so a full-sized orchestral harp might be largely “wasted”, but it would be annoying to find I can’t play a certain piece because one of the notes isn’t on the instrument.

    What I would use it for:
    I would like to learn some of the well-known harp repertoire pieces, but would also compose my own arrangements of well-known tunes (as I currently do with other instruments).

    How much to spend?
    I can’t see the point (as a beginner) of paying 000s for a professional model, but am not going to rush out and waste 200 on something no better than a child’s toy.

    What if I don’t like it?
    My house is full of instruments – my children have access to all of these, and are welcome to try them. Also, the local school has a harp teacher for the orchestra.

    Perhaps somebody can remember being in the same situation in the past?

    I look forward to hearing from you and will read all your replies.

    BTW, I live in North Germany.

    Participant
    wil-weten on #254631

    Hi James,
    As you are in Germany, you may like to subscribe to Harfenforum dot de (messages with links will be automatically deleted, so, I describe them this way). If you don’t subscribe, you can see the messages, but not the photos.
    There, you will find lots of information of affordable and yet nice enough quality harps, like those of Mr. Gosenwinkel (very roughly finished with lots of visible glue etc, no levers, but real hooks, but the important thing is that they sound nice and are very affordable. There are lots of other possibilites, renting a harp is one of them.
    There’s also an international subforum there, where you may write in English instead of German.

    Anyway, do check the youtube channels of Josh Layne, Christy-Lyn Marais and of harp-school.com There’s a lot of valuable information you can get for free.

    You ask a lot of questions, I’ll be glad to answer them in more detail, but I think you might benefit more from studying the resources I mentioned above.

    And, happy harping! Lots of us are your age of older.

    Participant
    balfour-knight on #254632

    Hello James,

    It was good to read your post. I think that a good place to start is with the harp teacher for the orchestra at your local school. That would seem to be a place to get first-hand information.

    Whereas a standard piano has 88 notes, the standard pedal harp has 47 strings. That would be the only way to have the “complete range” of the instrument for whatever type of music you might play on it. Lever harps vary a great deal, as you may have found out! I would suggest a minimum range of 5 octaves, C to C, beginning on the C which is two octaves below middle C. This, by the way, is the standard range of the pipe organ keyboards, which have 61 notes per manual. (the pedal board of the organ has 32 notes standard, beginning on what would be the lowest C of the piano.)

    Since you are not sure whether you want to buy a harp right now, perhaps you could rent one to try out before you commit to the purchase of one, and take some beginning harp lessons to see how you like it. This would answer a lot of your questions first-hand.

    I live in western North Carolina and I see that you are in North Germany. Thanks for letting us know, so that these folks here on this forum can better answer your questions. I hope this helps a little, but ask all the questions you like–we will try to help.

    Best wishes,
    Balfour

    Participant
    Biagio on #254651

    Before jumping into makes, models and so on I would ask whether you have researched harp teachers? A music back ground is very helpful, especially piano, but harp technique is unlike any other instrument and you will need at least some initial guidance. A teacher will also be in a position to better evaluate what harp(s) might best suit you and might even be willing to loan or rent an instrument.

    Best wishes,
    Biagio

    Participant
    charles-nix on #254652

    Agreed with all the above. Find the teacher first. Bad habits are easy to acquire and hard to unlearn. On harp, bad habits directly translate into bad tone. Every detail of how your fingers contact the strings affects the sound; it takes the guidance of a teacher to learn what sound to expect and what to alter to get what you want.

    A teacher or other harpist can help you evaluate an instrument in person. A harp technician may also be a good choice for referrals on finding instruments. I am a proponent of renting and/or purchasing used. A used instrument, if in good condition, will already have developed its mature sound, and is unlikely to further depreciate–so you can sell it on once you more fully understand what sound you want from the harp. But be sure to know the pricing market and evaluate the condition and work needed.

    Even new instruments may have failures, sometimes just out of warranty. Or the warranty may require you ship to the factory for repairs at your cost.

    Participant
    james on #254665

    Hello wil-weten,
    many thanks for your hints and tips. I’d heard of Mr Gosewinkel, as there’s one of his instruments for sale nearby. But “no levers, but real hooks” doesn’t help, because I don’t know where they come in.
    I’d already seen a few of Ms Marais’ videos, but all the “introduction” videos so far assume one already has an instrument.
    I wasn’t aware of the german forum – I will look into it.

    This could all take a little time.

    Participant
    james on #254666

    Hello Balfour,
    thanks for taking the time to reply – you’ve given a lot of help with pedal harps. I’ve noticed that harps have many different numbers of strings – maybe I should go for the biggest so I don’t feel restricted later on.
    I found an excellent instruction video by Jacqueline Pollauf which gave me a lot of help.

    I guess the next level down is one with levers?
    There’s a harpbuilder called Gosewinkel not too far away, who makes a 27-string with 14 levers. How would this compare with a piano-keyboard for notes?

    Participant
    james on #254667

    Hello Biagio,
    thanks for the hint – I haven’t met the local harp teacher yet, but I know there is one who comes to the nearby school. This would be a new instrument to me, so I like to have a bit of knowledge before approaching a professional.

    Participant
    james on #254668

    Hello charles-nix,
    thanks for your input. Do harpists play different instruments, or is the sort of thing where you either play Celtic or pedal? There must be different techniques for the different types, but I’m approaching it as a complete outsider, so am fishing for any help available.

    Participant
    wil-weten on #254669

    Hi James,
    As to your question of levers /hooks. Both levers and hooks are used to produce a half note higher when they are engaged, as a lever makes a string as it were a bit shorter. So, with a lever or a hook mounted on the neck above an F string you can make an F-string sound as an F sharp when the lever is engaged.
    Hooks are simple, cheap and old fashioned ways to raise a string by a half note. You simply turn them until they touch the screw or whatever is mounted to prevent them from being turned too far. They are real ‘hooks’. so a piece of metal bent into a hook. You will see what I mean if you go to Mr. Gosewinkels website at gosewinkel-harfenbau dot hpage dot com (sorry that this forum deletes automatically messages with links).

    Mr. Gosewinkel’s harps have low tension strings. This is important to know, as some German teachers demand harps with high tension strings. You may find some youtube clips on which Mr. Gosewinkels plays his selft-built harps built by himself. You will hear that they sound completely different from a pedal harp. If you prefer the sound of a pedal harp, but choose to play a lever harp, there are several options, which are way cheaper than a pedal harp. The lever harp sounding most like a pedal harp is the 40 Lyon & Healy Prelude (I own one), but there are several others. If this kind of harp interests you, I will mention a few others sounding almost like a small pedal harp.

    You mention a 27-string harp. No, James, if you chose for a Gosewinkel harp, definitaly go for the harp with the most levers he has to offer. I think he has one of 31 strings with two whole octaves below middle C for 650 euro (price on his website). The problem with smaller harps is that they are difficult to balance, especially when you are not very short. And most lever harp literature expects two whole octaves below middle C. Yes, with a bit of creativity you can manage well with a 27 string harp, but larger harps sound richer and are kinder for your back.

    You can’t compare the budget-friendly Gosewinkel harps to high quality harps like those of Camac. You may like to see and listen to the models at the Camac lever harp playlist at youtube (This forum may still accept youtube links, but I will try that later on, as I don’t want this message to be deleted automatically because of the link). You will notice that all these models sound different. I have a Camac Excalibur harp (38 strings), because it sounds very balanced over the whole range and has a string tension somewhere between pedal string tension and celtic tension (beware these are rough indications, as e.g. there’s a lot of difference in tension in harps strung with celtic tension strings).

    There’s a lot more to say about this. In my next message I’ll try if this forum still accepts youtube links.

    As far as I know, only Mr. Gosewinkel uses hooks.

    As to levers, these come in several qualities. I prefer the very sophisticated Camac levers, which work smoothly and silently.

    Participant
    wil-weten on #254672

    Contrary to what I thought, now this forum doesn’t even accept youtube links…
    Fortunately, I could retrieve my message, so, I will post it here again, be it that I had to ‘unlink’ the links…

    Here Josh Layne explains a lot on buying harp: https:// youtu.be /- AN2C7M8dOc
    And here you find some information on this subject from Christy-Lyn Marais: https :// youtu.be /TkeSVPv3xlg

    Here you find the Camac playlist for lever harps: https :// youtu.be /jUxXul87oFM All 13 harps are played by François Pernel in the same room, so this helps comparing them a lot better than if they would be played by different persons, in rooms with different acoustics and different pieces of music.

    As you live in Germany, you have other choices for buying or renting a nice harp then when you would live elsewhere. Do subscribe to the German Forum. If the German language is a problem, post in the international subforum and you get all the answers (and more) that you need.

    Participant
    balfour-knight on #254675

    Hi, James!

    Those were nice posts, everyone, and thanks James.

    Just for clarity, 47 strings on the concert pedal harp cover most of the range of the 88 notes on the piano. The harp starts on the lowest C of the piano and goes up to the highest G. The harp’s range would therefore be equal to 80 notes on the piano. Generally, this would be described as six and one half octaves, even though it is actually a little larger at six octaves and a fifth. (The interval from C to G is called a “fifth.”)

    The pedal harp is tuned in C flat to begin with. (The red strings are C’s and the black strings are F’s.)
    Each pedal can raise the string two semi-tones, so that with a C you can play the string as C flat, C natural, and C sharp. Therefore, there are only 7 strings per octave, which gives you 21 different pitches per octave. (Keyboard instruments have 12 pitches per octave.)

    A five-octave lever harp has 36 strings. This is 7 strings per octave multiplied by 5 to get 35, plus the additional C at the top to make the octave complete. The range could also be A to A, or depending on the harp maker, any note to any note.

    A lever, hook, or blade can only raise the pitch of the string one semi-tone. Therefore, a lever on each string is desirable (I would say “essential”) in order to play in as many keys as you can and have as many accidentals as you can. To further explain, a lever harp tuned in the Key of C can be played in C and all seven sharp keys, plus their relative minor keys. To play in flat keys, the harp must be tuned that way. Some harpists tune in E flat, others in F, etc.

    I do hope this helps.

    Have a great day, my friends,
    Balfour

    Participant
    Biagio on #254676

    “Perhaps somebody can remember being in the same situation in the past?”

    Getting back to the nub or gist of James’ question…..

    Yes, remember clearly and it has been a long journey to discover what I actually did want to do aside from the general idea (“Gee, I think I would like to play the harp, maybe”). I was 50 at the time.

    Others have heard this story so I’ll keep it brief and hope it provides one person’s experience for comparison. It went like this:

    I had a lot of nice wood lying around and figured “How hard would it be to make one?” So I did a lot of research first just as James is doing and settled on buying the plans for a small 3 1/2 octave as a learning experience.

    I soon learned that I needed a teacher’s guidance: she was a professional harpist so I studied with Jocelyn on her concert grand pedal harp and made a 5 octave harp from a kit for myself. Did not like some of the strings though so made another one (not realizing that I would have just modified the string band design).

    I have since made and played many different designs (though was never interested in spending the $$ for a pedal harp). Those have included double strungs, wire strungs, one abortive attempt at a cross haha. All different sizes.

    I have been fortunate to live in one of the centers of harp enthusiasts and am surrounded with some of the best known players in the world. So what do I have now and intend to keep indefinitely?

    Two wire strungs (a 19 and a 26) and two nylon strungs (a 26 and a 36) all custom.

    If I were to do this all over again more rationally I would have followed Jocelyn’s advice. She said “Buy a good economical lever harp first while you learn good technique (she suggested the Dusty Strings Ravenna 34). Go to as many concerts as you can, join a harp circle or two, and listen listen listen. You can’t know when starting where this might take you so relax and find out.”

    So there you are: learn what constitutes a well made harp and buy or rent a good one, preferably from or with the guidance of a teacher. All of us have our favorite makes and models but no one can tell you what will be “right” for you.

    By the way, I don’t know any serious players who have only one harp!

    Best wishes in your journey,
    Biagio

    Participant
    wil-weten on #254680

    One of my messages spontaneously dissappeared as I tried to edit it (indeed, it’s the silly spam algorith of this forum that made it dissappear.
    Here it is again, hopefully now including the edit…

    In addition to what I wrote above, you may also like to visit:

    https :// www dot harp-school dot com /guides/choose-your-harp/

    Edit: James, as I like to complicate things, you may also like to read these articles (some of them may be in need of a bit of updating).

    https :// www dot harpspectrum dot org/folk/folk dot shtml
    https :// www dot harpspectrum dot org/pedal/pedal dot shtml

    Participant
    balfour-knight on #254681

    Biagio, my friend, I love your recap!
    James, I forgot to say that the pedal harp and lever harp are “diatonic” instruments, as opposed to “chromatic” ones. The cross-strung harp, as mentioned by Biagio, is chromatic, and a unique instrument which requires a different playing technique than other harps.

    The diatonic pedal and lever harps require the levers or pedals in order to be able to play all of the chromatic notes, sort of like the black keys on the piano. Without pedals or levers, the harp would be like a piano with just the white keys.

    Cheers, everyone!
    Balfour

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